If you see what we mean
The fact that some 750 million people were able simultaneously to watch the royal wedding on television recently affirms the extraordinary ingenuity with which we human beings have tried to eliminate the gulf between one another. It was not only a stunning spectacle, but dramatized, as the Archbishop of Canterbury pointed out, a central human reality -- the wedding union of a man and a woman. If one had to choose one piece of videofilm to put in a rocket and consign to those much-discussed alter egos of ours on another planet, we could do worse than send the film of that wedding.
But, assuming those humanoids also celebrate a lasting union between two sexes, how would they interpret it? Perhaps a social anthropologist among them would decide that the underlying purpose was to celebrate the railroad train, since the film ends with the royal pair mounting this contrivance to go on their honeymoon. The archbishop would then take on a new significance, as someone charged with blessing the Prince and Princess before undertaking this hazardous journey, rather as astronauts used to be wished God-speed by a dignitary from the White House. In confirmation of this theory, my mythical anthropologist would be able to point to the use of horses in the procession as a ritualistic reminder of the days of travel before the invention of the train.
It may be easier for those of us on this planet to enter sympathetically into the event and to interpret it according to our own experience, but even for us the connections are tenuous. How easy, for instance, is it for us to understand what is is really like to be the Prince of Wales? By necessity he has been brought up with a view of the world, and accustomed to a way of life, which only accidentally and occasionally resemble those of ordinary citizens in his own country, let alone in the other countries in which the million sat and watched. If Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said to Hemingway, "The very rich are different from you and me," how much more true would his remark be if applied to the Prince? The English crowds, who with their poster celebrating "Chas and Di" evidently believed the royal pair were like themselves, would have failed to understand Fitzgerald as completely as did Hemingway. And if we, his audience in England or America, cannot appreciate what it is like to be the Prince of Wales, how can an inhabitant of Calcutta, a city where people sleep and die on the open streets, understand the relative order and certitude of the Prince's world? How can a Chinese watching in Singapore understand the nature of the commitment being made during the marriage vows, when in his own community wives are traditionally divorced and replaced as casually as automobiles?
How wise then was the archbishop to stress that the central fact of the marriage commitment was all he wanted the great audience to remember, for perhaps this was sufficiently a common currency. For the rest, these glittering biengs came and went across our screens as mysteriously as characters from a Kafka novel, and despite the mountains of pictures, the deluge of words, we have no hope of really understanding them.
To succeed in not merely acting out some form of communication, but in altering as one wishes the understanding of the person to whom the communication is being conveyed, is a feat of remarkable difficulty. It is hardly surprising that we frequently fail, and that educators and businessmen assiduously study communication as thought it were a magical craft. Those of us who have tried to communicate an experience quite foreign to our hearers know, however, that the taks becomes impossible beyond a certain point.
The most we can hope for as we try to express ourselves to those with whom we transact our daily business, or even with those who are near and dear to us, is to convey a tiny, essential particle without which our world would collapse. And so the televising of the royal wedding was bound to be a glorious failure, inevitably doomed to be misunderstood in many respects by all who saw it. For however much our technological abilities increase, however much we become part of Marshall McLuhan's electronic village, we shall remain beset by those barriers of miscomprehension which are an inevitable part of the uniqueness of each of us. Is that not, in the last analysis, the price we must pay for being ourselves?